If there’s truth to the uniquely Calgary theory that the annual Stampede Chuckwagon Canvas Auction is a barometer of the city’s business community and the economy, there is encouraging news for 2019.
The always exciting March event gavelled down on more than $3.285 million in going-once, going-twice, sold-to-the-highest-bidder for the opportunity to advertise on the 36 chuckwagon tarps set to compete this month at the Calgary Stampede.
The good news? The auction total is up from last year (which was the worst showing since 2010) but still off the 2012 record year when the chuckwagon canvas auction brought in over $4 million in sponsorship bids.
“Looking back through historical numbers, there have always been ebbs and flows when it comes to the canvas auction,” says Dana Peers, president and board chair of the Calgary Stampede. “It’s the nature of the auction and it’s always hard to predict the final results. What we do know with certainty is that our community continues to show strong support for chuckwagon racing and its cultural, historic and sporting significance.
“The advertiser experience is much valued, even in challenging economic times.”
The enthusiasm, excitement and sponsor bids underscore that despite the western uniqueness and recent controversies surrounding chuckwagon racing, it continues as not only a popular spectator sport but as a viable ROI opportunity for area businesses and community groups.
“The Stampede has such an iconic history and a way of bringing people together,” says Grant Beck, president and CEO of Calgary-based Graham Group, one of North America’s premier integrated construction solutions partners. “And the Rangeland Derby sponsorship is a fabulous opportunity for Graham.”
No disputing – chuckwagon racing is a legit equestrian rodeo sport. And due to the dynamic work of the World Professional Chuckwagon Association (WPCA) and the Canadian Professional Chuckwagon Association (CPCA), it is most popular in Western Canada while stats show the Calgary Stampede – with a total purse in excess of $2 million – are the most famous chuckwagon races in the world.
For Calgarians, and out-of-town visitors, it’s a raucous and exciting event but not many know the unusual sport’s backstory. Although the drivers get most of the attention, chuckwagon racing is very much a team sport.
The driver leads a team of horses pulling the chuckwagon, supported by two outriders, who figuratively “break camp” by tossing a barrel (representing a camp stove) into the back of their wagon before mounting their horses and following the wagons as they complete a figure eight around two barrels before circling a racetrack. The first wagon to cross the finish line typically wins, although various time penalties can be handed out for infractions such as a barrel being knocked over, the stove not loaded or wagon interference.
In recent years, the sport has triggered some controversy about the risk of injury to the horses, and the drivers, prompting some animal welfare groups to protest.
But this month in Calgary, the tradition continues. Most chuckwagon drivers devote more than 10 months of early-morning/late-night long days of hard work and preparation leading up to the opportunity for the 36 highest bidders to have their name on a canvas during the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.
“To preserve and promote western heritage and values is our core purpose and has always been at the heart of our Stampede celebration,” Peers says with pride. “Agriculture and western events are one of the primary reasons more than 1.2 million people from our community and around the world visit Stampede every year. Nearly 70 per cent of our guests visit our agriculture area and, in 2018, tickets for the rodeo and evening show performances were, on average, 90-95 per cent sold out.”
While $3.2 million worth of sponsorships is a positive sign of Calgary’s recovery mood, Kynan Vine, the manager of western events for the Stampede, explains the business of the annual auction event. “It allows local companies and groups the opportunity to take part in an exclusive behind-the-scenes experience while also promoting their brand. We begin speaking with potential tarp advertisers well over a year in advance.”
This year, when the final gavel came down, “the big man” – colourful Rangeland Derby superstar and 27-year veteran of Stampede chuckwagon racing – Troy Dorchester commanded the record-setting top bid of $150,000 to drive with the Graham tarp on his wagon.
“Troy was definitely a driver we were looking at coming into the auction,” Beck admits. “He exemplifies the same values as Graham, which is commitment, integrity and reliability. He has an outstanding safety record on the track and a very long history, which is also something Graham has. So it just seemed like a really good match, and we’re delighted to have him driving for Graham.”
Although it is impossible to calculate ROI on chuckwagon canvas sponsorships, genuine passion for Calgary only goes so far. What’s in it for a Calgary businesses or groups to spend $90,000-$150,000 on 10 days of advertising exposure during a popular but unusual sport?
“They get the exclusive opportunity to host guests in the barns, meet the drivers and their horses, learn about the sport from the inside,” Vine points out. “They also host guests in with private functions that include food and beverage service. They also receive tickets for themselves and their guests to watch the wagons. And the advertising on the actual tarp itself is in front of 20,000 guests per night as well as the invaluable TV exposure across North America.”
Graham’s Grant Beck agrees. “Along with great brand exposure, we take full advantage of the 10 days to show appreciation to our valued clients, partners and employee-owners. Another aspect is giving back to the community both locally and farther reaching. Each year, we support a charity raising funds through employee engagement. This year we are partnering with Support Our Troops.”
The personable 46-year-old married father of three Troy Dorchester is (by his own roaring laugh admission) “a big-boned guy” and, with a passion for horses and chuckwagon racing, is a gregarious poster boy for the unique and physical sport.
“I work hard. I’m a horse guy. It’s my life. I try to focus and I absolutely love what I do. Clean and steady,” he says with an infectiously warm smile.
“Make some money and win some championships. But looking after 25-30 horses, year-round, and months of racing is a hard game. And it’s expensive. I have never been a nervous type but, during race season, my adrenalin is definitely going. It’s a rush. There’s nothing like it.”
Dorchester admits to being surprised with Graham’s $150,000 auction bid. Of course it’s flattering but, especially for a consummate people person, the ROI on Graham’s investment will flow naturally. “I’m an easy-going guy and a good host,” he chuckles. “I enjoy entertaining people and telling them about my life and our sport. But what’s most important is flying the colours and doing as well as I can.”
(Top 10 Chuckwagon Canvas Auction sponsorships)
- Troy Dorchester $150,000 Graham Group Ltd.
- Kurt Bensmiller $120,000 Versatile Energy Services
- Jason Glass $120,000 Friends of Jason Glass
- Mark Sutherland $105,000 Friends of Sutherland Racing
- Gary Gorst $105,000 Painted Pony Energy Ltd.
- Evan Salmond $105,000 Excel Projects
- Codey McCurrach $105,000 iON United
- Vern Nolin $100,000 Dentons Canada LLP
- BJ Carey $100,000 Carey’s Cartel
- Logan Gorst $100,000 Century Downs Racetrack and Casino